Apaar Kumar: On Kant’s Empfindung

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A patch enters the landscape and appears on the horizon. I do not realise that it is a human figure, let alone recognise the person’s identity. But I experience a vague impression of this indistinct object: sensation. Sensation is one of the core ideas of the epistemological system of reference in western philosophy, that of Immanuel Kant, as propounded in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781-1787). But while absolutely foundational, sensation or Empfindung remains a controversial matter among the commentators of the German philosopher. Dr. Apaar Kumar, who holds a Ph.D in Philosophy from Emory University, USA, visited the Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities on Thursday 7th November, 2013, and shared his view on this debate.

Kumar presented the two positions in place in this discussion under the head of their main proponents. Falkenstein contends that for Kant, Empfindung is the physiological effect of the perceived object on the subject’s body. That is, the eye sees the object, and sensation is created through this interaction. Sensation should, thus, be defined referentially, that is, always in reference to the object in question. After all, without the object, there would be no sensation. If there was no patch on the horizon, you would not see a person. The phenomenon of sensation would thus take a different form for each object sensed. In contrast, George has argued that sensation is for Kant only a modification of the subject’s mental state, arising after the subject is initially affected by the object. Sensation would thus happen within the subject, or, in other words, non-referentially vis-à-vis the sensed object. That is, the eye sees the object, but the person has to recognise it on a subject level to see the object. You could be gazing blankly at the landscape, but it is only when your attention is drawn to the patch that you actually see it. This is the position that Apaar Kumar defended. To strengthen his thesis, he invoked three different kinds of arguments. The first was textual: Kumar mentioned a number of early manuscripts of Kant’s, which unambiguously indicate that Kant conceived of Empfindung in a non-referential manner. The second was historical. Johannes Nikolaus Tetens, a major 18th century German thinker, is often thought of as a major influence of Kant. Kumar recalled that Tetens’ understanding of sensation is entirely compatible with a non-referential position, since Tetens highlighted the internal and mental nature of the integration of the sensory experience. The third and last argument was more conceptual. Kumar suggested a typology of the sensibilities as found in Kant’s treatises arranges as a progressive series. Starting in sensation, it then leads to the a-temporal and obscure impression of the object, continuing in perception, which is temporal and clear, when my general sensory receptivity gets focused on one particular object, and ending in cognition when my mind processes the sense data to form a temporal and distinct understanding of the object in question. To return to our patch, Kant makes distinctions between the haze at the horizon, a distinct figure, and an understanding that the shape one is seeing is a human figure. The last two stages of this process involve subjective understanding of the object.

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Apaar Kumar’s talk allowed the audience to acquire familiarity with the dense prose of Kant. He brought forth a number of convincing arguments inviting the students and teachers present to consider his claim. But these positions, naturally also faced certain counter-arguments and contentions. George Varghese, Nikhil Govind and a few students raised questions relying more or less explicitly on famous later criticisms of Kant, in particular Hegel’s. Indeed, if sensation is defined as the unclear awareness of an object, delimitated by its transformation into a proper perception when the object becomes clearly apprehended, what is it that permits this shift, and could not this also define sensation and distinguish it from other sensibilities? For Hegel, it is Desire that operates this sort of shift, and this sort of force is for him more powerful and universal than the human cognitive apparatus as discussed by Kant. Kumar responded that this shift from sensation to perception is contingent: the unclear sensation of pain in my leg becomes a clear perception once I stretch the limb too far, or the little figure in a painting attracts my attention and gets me away from my general, skimming glance when a friend indicates this new object to me. One may asks why our attention is drawn to that particular object, but that question remains external to how we see the object itself. Asim Siddiqui mentioned one of the possible applications of Kumar’s insights: if Kant argued that all (clear) perception exists only surrounded by a set of (unclear) sensations, we can see in the German philosopher a predecessor of the theories of the unconscious as intuited by Friedrich Nietzsche and formulated by Sigmund Freud. Apaar Kumar explained that this is a hypothesis on which he is already working.

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